NBA

Stars under 25 leading their team to the Finals

Jayson Tatum marks just the 10th time someone under 25 has been the best player on a Finals team. How did the others fare?

Jayson Tatum is the best player on the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics. He is 24 years old. The history of players that have taken their team to the NBA Finals before getting off of their parents’ insurance is short and, naturally, legend laden.

The lead-up to the series talked nonstop about how the Warriors’ age and experience plays to their advantage in this Finals. Golden State boasted a combined 123 games of Finals experience to Boston’s 0. They’re as seasoned as any Finals team can be, and they’re going against an especially young superstar. Tatum’s brightest co-star, Jaylen Brown, is only one year older at 25. He’s been to equally zero NBA Finals.

How much does the age and experience of a lead star matter on the sport’s most brilliant stage? Of the players to do it in the modern era, their combined Finals record is 2-7. As all things are, it’s more complicated than that.

Players under a quarter century to lead their team to the Finals as a top dog:

Devin Booker – 2021 Phoenix Suns

Result: Lose to Milwaukee Bucks, 4 games to 2

Age: 24

Finals stats: 28.2 points – 3.5 rebounds – 4.0 assists – 0.8 steals – 0.3 steals

45.5% field goals – 26.8% three point – 87.5% free throws – 3.2 turnovers

We couldn’t have to go back any shorter than the most recent Finals. Booker had an amazing year, leading the Suns all the way to the Western Conference title in his first playoff appearance. Booker is the only guy on this list to reach his Finals in his first playoffs. Four other sub-25 year olds made it in their second playoffs.

After missing the playoffs in 2020, Phoenix knocked off both WCF teams from the season before: the reigning champion Lakers and the Denver Nuggets. Booker, Chris Paul, and the Suns took out Paul George’s Clippers in the WCF.

Book increased his points, rebounds, and assists numbers from the regular season to the playoffs, and then scored even more than that in the Finals. He had 27 and 31 points and 6 assists each in Games 1 and 2. Phoenix took a 2-0 lead heading back to Milwaukee. 

The Bucks then won four straight behind the unstoppability of Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks were able to clamp down on the Suns’ three-headed offensive attack of Booker, Paul, and Deandre Ayton. 

Booker dropped 42 and 40 points in Games 4 and 5, which Phoenix lost by 6 and 4 points. In the close out Game 6, he went for 19 points on 8-22 shooting and committed 6 turnovers. 

Kevin Durant – 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder

Result: Lose to Miami Heat, 4 games to 1

Age: 23

Finals stats: 30.6 points – 6.0 rebounds – 2.2 assists – 1.4 steals – 1.0 blocks

54.8% field goals – 39.4% three point – 83.9% free throws – 3.8 turnovers

Durant was a menace in the 2012 playoffs. Fresh off his third scoring title by age 23, the Durantula averaged more points on better shooting every round the Thunder advanced deeper. 

OKC started their run with a sweep of the reigning champ Dallas Mavericks, who had bounced them from the Conference Finals the season before. They then took care of the 2010 champ Lakers and the 2014 champ Spurs in 5 and 6, including winning four straight against San An after going down 0-2.

Riding that four game winning streak into the Finals, the Thunder took the first game against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and the Heat behind Durant’s 36-8-4 on 75% TS.

Eventually, the Heat overwhelmed the baby Thunder. Their four best players were 23 or 22 (Durant and Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka) and their fifth-best player was 37 (Derek Fisher). The moment and opponent were too much, and No. 6 on the other side was not to be denied.

After three sparkling performances, Durant committed 5 and 7 turnovers in the final two games, and racked up 5 fouls in each. He balanced those with just 6 total assists over 89 minutes in the two losses.

LeBron James – 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers

Result: Lose to San Antonio Spurs, 4 games to 0

Age: 22

Finals stats: 22.0 points – 7.0 rebounds – 6.8 assists – 1.0 steals – 0.5 blocks

35.6% field goals – 20.0% three point – 69.0% free throws – 5.8 turnovers

In his first playoffs, King James lost in the Conference Semis in 7 to the Detroit Pistons. In his second playoffs, he beat those Pistons to reach the NBA Finals. He was averaging 26-8-8 on 43% FG heading into the Finals, and riding a four game playoff winning streak heading into San Antonio.

The Spurs were a different beast. In four games, the Cavs scored 76, 92, 72, and 82 points. And it wasn’t just James getting locked down. Only one other Cavalier scored more than 15 points in four games against these Spurs: Daniel Gibson, who had 16 points in Game 1.

LeBron’s averages above pretty much summarize the series.

Still, for a historic beatdown, the games were pretty close. Cleveland lost by 11 and 9 in the first two games on the road, but lost by three in Game 3 after a missed LeBron buzzer-beater from 26 feet. In the Game 4 clincher, they lost by a single free throw. The Cavs scored 9 points in the final 7.5 seconds, and 13 in the final 26 seconds. The Spurs narrowly avoided what may have been the worst single-game collapse in Finals history.

Dwyane Wade – 2006 Miami Heat

Result: Defeat Dallas Mavericks, 4 games to 2

Age: 24

Finals stats: 34.7 points – 7.8 rebounds – 3.8 assists – 2.7 steals – 1.0 blocks

46.8% field goals – 27.3% three point – 77.3% free throws – 3.7 turnovers

The ’06 Finals are forever marred as the free throws series, and probably rightfully. Wade set the modern era record for most free throws ever in a series, and it only went 6 games. He averaged 16.2 trips to the stripe.

Wade was still brilliant. They won in 6 in a series where Shaq and Antoine Walker averaged under 14 points each, and had more turnovers than assists. People never talk about the fact that not only was Wade the Heat’s best player by Shaq’s fourth title, but Shaq was the third-leading scorer. By literally one single point, and only in this series, but we move.

If you’re counting all-time players most adept at getting to the rim, you won’t run out of fingers before Dwyane Wade comes up, and you won’t need your thumbs. He was magical over his peak, and Flash was no accident of a nickname. His defense, which we always say is PoUnD fOr PoUnD some of the best, showed up in this series.

Over the final four contests, where the Heat won all four to overcome a 2-0 deficit, Wade put up 42, 36, 43, and 36.

Foot note: Jason Williams was the only player in this series to average more than 4 assists (4.7). Least for a Finals ever. Don’t know what that means for this article’s purposes, but it is a little silly. Basketball was its darkest in the ‘00s, especially the earlier parts.

Shaquille O’Neal – 1995 Magic

Result: Lose to Houston Rockets, 4 games to 0

Age: 22

Finals stats: 28.0 points – 12.5 rebounds – 6.3 assists – 0.3 steals – 2.5 blocks

59.5% field goals – 0.0% three point – 57.1% free throws – 5.3 turnovers

After a first round exit in his postseason debut, Big Aristotle took his team to the summit of the mountain. There, he had to wrestle Hakeem Olajuwon to reach the very top. Much to the chagrin of DJ Khaled feat. Ludacris, Rick Ross, Snoop Dogg, and T-Pain, he didn’t win.

In fact, Orlando got beat like a drum. Shaq averaged his most points of the playoff run against Houston, but Dream answered with 33-13-6 averages on his head. Hakeem led all four games in scoring. The round before, he had embarrassed MVP David Robinson. Shaq performed better than the prime Admiral had, which honestly should be a bigger consolation than you think. Houston was a buzzsaw, and it’s a lot more than Kazaam’s fault.

The Magic had six players average double figures, but no one other than those six dudes averaged 11 minutes a game. On the other side, all five Houston starters averaged 14+, and the turnover battle was 16.0 to 9.8.

23 year old Penny Hardaway had what many would call a very nice series in these Finals. 26-5-8 on 50/46/91 and 3.8 turnovers. 

Game 1 is best remembered as the game where Nick Anderson missed four straight free throws to win the game, and then Dream hit a game-winner in overtime. There was little air in Orlando after that. Not sure that game changes the whole result, but this wasn’t quite the typical beatdown a sweep is. Four good games.

Hakeem Olajuwon – 1986 Rockets

Result: Lose to Boston Celtics, 4 games to 2

Age: 23

Finals stats: 24.7 points – 11.8 rebounds – 1.8 assists – 2.3 steals – 3.2 blocks

47.9% field goals – 0.0% three point – 66.7% free throws – 2.7 turnovers

The Dream giving Shaq a nightmare in his first Finals ride was a reciprocation of the hazing done unto him. Also in his second playoffs following a first round bow out, Olajuwon cooked his way to the summit. The Rockets bounced the defending champion Lakers in 5 games in the WCF. This isn’t about them, but Magic averaged 22-8-16 with 2.4 steals on 53% in that series! 16 assists! 27-7-3 for Kareem on 50% and 20-5-4 on 52% for James Worthy, and they took one game off these Rockets. Shout out to Rodney McCray.

The 1986 Celtics are one of the best teams of all-time. If you ask the right old head, they’re THE best team of all-time. Some guys on this list fell in less games to lesser opponents, so Hakeem has nothing to be ashamed of. 

Ultimately, good help was not enough help. Unwinnable situation for Houston. Larry Bird took home FMVP averaging 24-10-10, and Kevin McHale averaged 26-9 with 2.5 blocks, and Robert Parish did his thing, and so did Dennis Johnson, and Danny Ainge had 14-4-6 with 2.5 steals, and Bill Walton had his fun too. That’s six Hall of Famers if you count Danny Ainge, and five if you don’t. Tough scene.

Magic Johnson – 1984 Lakers

Result: Lose to Boston Celtics, 4 games to 3

Age: 24

Finals stats: 18.0 points – 7.7 rebounds – 13.6 assists – 2.0 steals – 0.9 blocks

56.0% field goals – 0.0% three point – 74.4% free throws – 4.4 turnovers

Not to spoil the next guy on our list, but this was not Magic’s first Finals. In fact, it was his fourth in his first five seasons. He already had as many rings as thumbs heading into this series. This was his first postseason matchup with Larry Bird since the 1979 NCAA Championship, where Magic’s Michigan State Spartans beat Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, 75-64. That game remains the highest-rated college basketball broadcast ever.

Those two boys both brought it. Magic stuffed the box score every which way, as you can see. The Hick from French Lick took home Finals MVP with 27-14-4 averages of his own. 

In the epic Game 7, Magic had 16-5-15 on 35.7% shooting and 7 turnovers. The Celtics won, 111-102.

Magic Johnson – 1983 Lakers

Result: Lose to Philadelphia 76ers, 4 games to 0

Age: 23

Finals stats: 19.0 points – 7.8 rebounds – 12.5 assists – 1.8 steals – 0.8 blocks

40.3% field goals – 0.0% three point – 92.9% free throws – 6.0 turnovers

Look who it is! Earvin. A year younger than the version we just touched on, this version of Johnson was naturally a hair worse. The Lakers had also had a year younger version of Kareem as well, which should’ve helped. They had no James Worthy, though.

The 76ers were no easier of a matchup with Moses Malone and Dr. J on the other side. Along with Andrew Toney and Hall of Famers Bobby Jones and Maurice Cheeks, Philadelphia featured five All-Stars. They’re another one of the best teams ever, dropping just one game in the 1983 playoffs.

Kareem was thoroughly outplayed by MVP and Finals MVP Moses Malone, and that left too much up to poor Magic. Despite it being his third Finals and gaudy volume numbers, he had no answers for the 65-win ‘6ers.

We’ll note here that Magic also led his team to the Finals in 1982 and 1980, when he was 22 and 20. However, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the best player on those teams. 

Larry Bird – 1981 Celtics

Result: Defeat Houston Rockets, 4 games to 2

Age: 24

Finals stats: 15.3 points – 15.3 rebounds – 7.0 assists – 2.3 steals – 0.5 blocks

41.9% field goals – 33.3% three point – 81.3% free throws – 3.2 turnovers

Bird was the Celtics best player on draft night. He immediately led Boston to the biggest single season turnaround ever: the Celtics won 29 games in 1979, and 61 in Bird’s rookie year. After losing in the Conference Finals in his rookie playoffs, he would win that coveted 11th playoff game as a sophomore.

It’s interesting that Bird didn’t win Finals MVP. He averaged 24-13-7 in round one over the Bulls and 27-13-5 in the Conference Finals over Philadelphia. 15-15-7 is quite a #weird stat line. Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell put up 18-10-3, but on 56.8% shooting and with the exact same amount of turnovers. It’s a weird comparison, and Maxwell had the narrative on his side.

In the clincher, Bird asserted his case as the champs’ best player with 27-13-5 on 55.0% shooting. The Celtics clinched on Moses Malone’s home floor in Houston, 102-91.

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